Tonight was a good night. It was a night that serves as a perfect example for the importance of education, and the perfect conclusion to my internship with Pratham. During my time interning at Pratham, I have seen what can be done to ensure quality education for all children, I have seen how it can be done, but I did not have the opportunity to spend enough time in the field to understand why it must be done. Tonight, I have finally realized what education can offer these young children.
I was on the train at 8pm going to visit some friends, and two little beggar children had jumped on right behind, nagging me for money. The train was relatively empty since it was after rush hour, and I was sitting in the less crowded women’s compartment. I have gotten quite used to being pegged as the compassionate tourist who quickly doles out money with one pleading look, but I have also learned that if you give money to one child, many others start crowding you, asking you for money. Besides the discomfort of 10 little children surrounding you telling you they’re hungry, I have also been told that many of the children work for an underground system, and that the money you give them doesn’t actually go to them at all. For these reasons I have become quite wary of handing out a few rupees here and there, even while my conscious is screaming to help them.
Sitting on the train, trying to ignore the little boy tapping my knee, my conscious was again longing to give the children what they wanted to pacify their pleading eyes. Finally, once the boys realized I wasn’t going to budge, they began talking among themselves and exchanging pieces of the crackers they were holding in their hands. Every once in awhile they would catch me looking at them and give me a big warm smile. I smiled back and asked one of the boys if he knew any English. He began to count to 10 in English and the other younger boy quickly joined in. I had learned to count to 10 in Hindi, and after they finished I stumbled through the Hindi numbers with their help. They absolutely loved showing me what they knew, and they loved teaching me even more. Soon I was using the telephone numbers in the advertisements on the walls of the train to test the boys on their recall time, and we soon had made a game of it. I was almost at my stop and I told the boys that I would give each of them 2 rupees if they could correctly recall all the numbers I pointed to in the advertisement. They eagerly agreed and worked hard to get the numbers right. We were all so absorbed in the game that I almost missed my stop, and had to jump out after the train had already begun moving again. The children followed me out and as I had promised I gave them each 2 rupees. It may have been my imagination, but the boys looked proud of the money they had earned, and they didn’t ask me for more. They understood that at least with this American tourist, they had to work for the money I gave them. Smiling and telling them good job, I was suddenly reminded of my grandfather who always rewarded us with a few dollars or a gold coin if we memorized a poem, or earned all “As” at school. He never believed in just “inheriting” money or simply giving it away. I always thought he was a little cold for doing so, but now I understand it goes both ways. Money takes on a whole new meaning when you have earned it yourself, and your self-image and self-confidence change drastically in the process. On a very minute scale, I caught a glimpse of what Pratham does through its focus on quality education for hundreds of thousands of children in India. I realized that educating them isn’t only to provide them the basic skills needed to secure a job, but also the personal and interpersonal skills necessary to develop their confidence in their own capabilities. The education that these children receive through Pratham develops discipline, commitment, and self-worth, keeping them off the streets and bothering sympathetic travelers like me.